Letters to a Young Therapist


By Mary Pipher

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Mary Pipher's groundbreaking investigation of America's "girl-poisoning culture," Reviving Ophelia, has sold nearly two million copies and established its author as one of the nation's foremost authorities on family issues. In Letters to a Young Therapist, Dr. Pipher shares what she has learned in thirty years as a therapist, helping warring families, alienated adolescents, and harried professionals restore peace and beauty to their lives. Letters to a Young Therapist gives voice to her practice with an exhilarating mix of storytelling and sharp-eyed observation. And while her letters are addressed to an imagined young therapist, every one of us can take something away from them.

Long before "positive psychology" became a buzzword, Dr. Pipher practiced a refreshingly inventive therapy — fiercely optimistic, free of dogma or psychobabble, and laced with generous warmth and practical common sense. But not until now has this gifted healer described her unique perspective on how therapy can help us revitalize our emotional landscape in an increasingly stressful world. Whether she's recommending daily swims for a sluggish teenager, encouraging a timid husband to become bolder, or simply bearing witness to a bereaved parent's sorrow, Dr. Pipher's compassion and insight shine from every page of this thoughtful and engaging book.





December 2

Dear Laura,

Last night I sorted through some old black-and-white photographs. In one of my baby pictures, I am asleep with a magazine on my chest. Even then, I “read” myself to sleep. In another, I pose joyfully in a high chair covered with dinner, happily stuffing cake into my mouth. Still today, good food is one of my greatest pleasures. Another photo shows me standing beside my brother Jake in front of a big, red brick building. It’s our first day in a new school. We’re dressed in ill-fitting, old-fashioned coats. We look skinny and scared, our eyes wide with alarm. He’s leaning into me and I am holding his hand.

These pictures construct a breadcrumb trail through the forest of time that lies between the me who was born in the Ozark Mountains and the fifty five-year-old me who lives in Nebraska today. The girl who squeezed her brother’s hand before marching into the schoolhouse echoes within the therapist who often says to clients, “Together we can make things better.”

As an old man, Mark Twain said, “I have arrived at an age at which the things I remember most clearly never happened.” Memory is constructed and reconstructed. It changes constantly and is as subjective as dreams. Still, I’d like to share my breadcrumb trail with you.

I lived first in a small house my dad built when he returned to Missouri after World War Two. A year later we moved to Denver so my mother could go to medical school. After she graduated, my family’s trail meandered to a number of small Nebraska towns, and then to Kansas, where I graduated from high school in 1965. Four years later I received my undergraduate degree from the University of California at Berkeley. Afterward, I bummed around Europe and Mexico before I settled down to graduate school and, later, to life in Lincoln as a wife, mother, and psychologist. From the beginning, no matter where I have lived, I have been restless, talkative, and intense. I have liked people, the natural world, and books.

Certain defining moments shaped my thinking. I remember the night when I was three years old that I became a cultural relativist, although, of course, I didn’t know the phrase at the time. This was in 1950, before antibiotics were widely used. My mother had lectured me frequently that, after my baths, I must immediately dry my feet and put on my socks so that I wouldn’t catch cold. But one night my Aunt Agnes supervised me as I crawled out of her tiger-claw bathtub and toweled off my feet. She admonished me, “Good little girls dry their bottoms first and then put on their underpants.” I was surprised that two women whom I deeply trusted could disagree on a subject of such vital importance.

My family life was an education in point of view. I was the oldest daughter in a big family with a doctor mother and a lab-technician father who, when he wasn’t working in hospitals, took time to raise pigs, geese, and pigeons. My mother’s people were Methodists from eastern Colorado, poor ranchers, but well-educated and civic-minded. My father’s relatives were colorful, warm-hearted people from the Ozarks. I had a millionaire aunt who was liberal, a farmer uncle who voted for Barry Goldwater, and another uncle who sold wieners and lard and had no interest in politics at all. My Aunt Margaret’s family spent a year traveling around the world. My grandmother Glessie May was married to a man who lived a long life and died without ever leaving Christian County, Missouri. He asked rhetorically, “Why would I want to leave paradise?” At our house, emotional people played cards with stoics. Sophisticates and provincials told long stories and Southern Baptists shared chicken dinners with Unitarians.

When we lived in Beaver City, Nebraska, members of our extended family would visit us for weeks at a time. My cousins and I would roam the fields, hike down to Beaver Creek, or bike around town looking for action on the quiet streets. At night, the adults played cards and argued politics. When conversation flagged around midnight, my dad would bribe the others, “Would you stay up if I fried some T-bones and potatoes?”

I slept in a daybed just off the dining room and I stayed awake listening to the sound of grown-ups talking. As I listened, I asked myself: Why did certain people fall in love with each other? Why did one family forbid rock and roll and movies? Why did one uncle drink so much? Why did some relatives love FDR and others detest him? Why was one cousin a bully and another wonderfully patient with me?

I worked at my mom’s office counting out pills and sterilizing rubber gloves and surgical equipment. I heard the nurses whisper about things that most kids didn’t know—that the woman who cleaned the bank was a prostitute, that the rich farmer who sent my mother flowers wanted her to perform an abortion for his girlfriend, and that the laughing man who ushered us into church was dying of leukemia.

Every small town has a cast of characters right out of Shakespeare. I knew the town drunk, the saintly or bitter shut-ins, the old soldiers, and the gay choir director. My schoolteachers were of mixed caliber, some indifferent and ignorant, others fiercely dedicated to teaching us the chief exports of Peru and China and how to diagram sentences. I chatted with hardworking merchants, hoodlums with ducktail haircuts, a kind-hearted undertaker, and a hot-tempered mayor. Our next-door neighbors believed it was sinful to wear shorts in public. That meant his sons couldn’t play basketball and none of the kids could swim at our public pool—a harsh religion indeed.

Another breadcrumb on the trail was my role as family leader. My parents were away from home most of the time and we kids experienced a great deal of benign neglect. Many times we trudged through a blizzard eight blocks to school only to discover that school was cancelled for the day. Summer mornings I would dish myself a bowl of ice cream for breakfast and then decide whether I’d rather spend the morning at the library or under our apricot tree playing with other kids. I was the planner and fixer in my family. Once when I was five, my aunt asked my dad if our family wanted to go on a picnic. He answered, “Ask Mary, she plans everything.”

Some psychologists would immediately label me as a parental child, prematurely responsible, and they would tsk-tsk in sympathy. But I see it differently. I had an important family role, which offered me authority and autonomy. I learned very young the joys of working hard and being useful. I developed skills in cooking, caring for children, making decisions, and organizing people. I discovered that the way to get my needs met was to first meet the needs of others. If I could tell people stories, bake them cookies, and make them laugh, I would be loved.

The prejudice in my town was another breadcrumb. The crippled son of our drugstore owner once made the terrible mistake of trying to kiss another boy, and after that his life was a perpetual hell. To this day I shudder when I think of the punishment inflicted on him for being “different.” There were twin brothers, Denny and Kenny, unwashed and neglected, who were teased mercilessly for the crime of being sons of a convicted murderer. Another kid, Herbert, had some kind of dental problem that caused him to spit and slobber when he spoke. Children wouldn’t go near him because he had “germs.” Finally there was Naomi Rainwater, a Native-American girl who attended our school. Students just totally ignored her, as if having brown skin made her invisible. Even as a kid, I sensed all this was wrong. I was too young to know what to do about it, but I didn’t like it and I stayed out of cruel games. I wish I could say I stood up for the children I have mentioned but I didn’t do that either. Maybe that is why I try to stand up for people now. I have something to atone for.

Our town was surrounded by prairie dog villages. A more remote place in America is hardly imaginable. The skies sparkled clearer then and I remember the Northern Lights and winter stars tense with frost. In the pre-television world, time unfurled slowly. I lazed under the elms in the town square visiting with old men and babies. I sipped limeade and read comics at the drugstore and at night, my friends and I sprawled in the grass, looked at the Milky Way, and told ghost stories.

I learned to depend on the natural world for comfort and entertainment. After rainstorms, I rescued baby birds and mice and once I raised a magpie to be my summer companion. In the spring, our family bought baby coyotes from bounty hunters and we played with them until fall. Then we released them by Beaver Creek. We picked up turtles and snakes off the highways and kept them in aquariums. I was outdoors every moment I could be and I learned that whenever I was bored or upset, Mother Nature would take care of me.

By the time I was twelve, I had read every children’s book in our town library—not a great feat because the collection was small. I liked the biographies of Helen Keller, Albert Sweitzer, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Madame Curie. I loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Good Earth, and a book called The Silver Sword about heroic Polish children who survived without parents during World War Two.

At this age I also discovered the Diary of Anne Frank and it stunned me. For the first time, I encountered evil—not just misguided, impulsive, or confused actions, of which I had seen plenty, but truly evil ones. For weeks afterward, I didn’t eat or sleep well. I couldn’t imagine a point of view that allowed adults to murder children. My mind struggled to comprehend this new information about what humans could do to each other. But paradoxically, the story also taught me about heroism. Anne Frank remains my greatest hero.

Sometimes my books landed me in trouble. Once on a family vacation I was reading Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving. This was a popular psychology book exploring the nature of intimacy. My dad glanced with alarm at the title. He surmised I had descended into smutty material and threw my beloved book into our campfire.

Reading transported me all over the world; it entertained me and calmed me down when I was rattled from family arguments or a rough day at school. With books I could be in my family’s kitchen stirring bean soup and also in London with David Copperfield, on the trail of jewel thieves with the Dana Sisters or Nancy Drew. My mind became roomier.

If we conceive of life as a calendar year, beginning with spring and ending in deepest winter, then I am in the late autumn of my life. This season encourages an examination of the past. The stuff I took for granted as a girl—long summer days when nothing happened, aunts canning tomatoes or making mincemeat pies, fall evenings smelling of burning leaves—makes me ache with longing as a middle-aged woman.

Laura, you are in the early summer of your life. I am curious to see how your seasons will unfurl. Next supervision session I’d like to hear more about your history. You told me that in school you were the student other kids talked to about their problems. Being a confidante is part of your breadcrumb trail, as it is for many in our field. An examination of your past can help you know yourself better. Knowing yourself helps with your life as well as with your work.



December 26

Dear Laura,

I just returned from our family Christmas celebration. We gathered for a potluck dinner followed by plum pudding and a gift exchange. Over guacamole my niece told me she planned to be a webmaster, a profession not even invented when I was her age. We had a good talk about choosing a career, about the difference between being good at something and liking it, and about how work shouldn’t be just about money. My niece told me she had heard there were jobs for webmasters in Tampa and she’d always wanted to live near a beach.

Our discussion led me to reflect on my own decision, made impulsively thirty years ago, to be a psychologist. Because I couldn’t secure funding for graduate school in anthropology, I more or less bumbled into psychology. On a whim, I walked into the campus psychological consultation center and met the director of the clinical program. He encouraged me to consider the Ph.D. program and guaranteed funding. I was damn lucky. I loved graduate school. I have been able to work as a therapist, consultant, teacher, writer, and speaker—all because I was a psychologist. Laura, I know you wonder if you have the talents to be a good therapist. Permit me to have an “Aunt Mary” conversation with you on that topic.

We therapists end up sitting in small, often uncomfortable rooms eight hours a day listening to one person after another talk about unresponsive mates, surly teenagers, and control-freak bosses. Unless we have abiding curiosity, hour after hour of such conversations can be tough slogging. We who like the work tend to be fascinated by the infinite variety of ways in which humans get themselves in and out of trouble.

Doing therapy requires energy, focus, and patience. It’s not particularly remunerative or prestigious and, unless you are motivated by a desire to help others, you are unlikely to last. Therapist Harry Aponte said that he couldn’t work with people unless he saw something of himself in them and they saw something of themselves in him. Just as respect tends to be mutual, so does contempt. Unless your basic feelings toward most people are positive, therapy is not for you.

One of my writing teachers once advised me, “If your message for the world is that life is shit, spare the reader.” Not a bad dictum for therapists as well. People come into therapy when they feel whipped. A great deal of our work is about hope. I can still picture Kimberly, a beautiful pregnant woman with waist-length blond hair sobbing for fifty minutes, unable to talk after telling me, “I have MS.” That first session I passed her Kleenex and listened. At the end I hugged her and invited her back in two days. During our second session we talked about her three young kids and her husband who wasn’t much of a provider and who leaned on her for decision-making and emotional support. She cried some more. I said, “You have already done the hardest thing which is to face this problem.” And I continued, “You’ll get through this. You are stronger than you think. Your family will do their best.” At the end of that second session I asked, “What can you do to cope with the next few days?” Tearfully Kimberly answered, “Tonight I’ll take my girls to the park.”

Hope was my primary gift to Svetlana, a shy girl who was the victim of much teasing in middle school. By the end of the ninth grade, she had internalized all her peers’ scorn and no longer believed in herself. As I got to know her I discovered her love of animals and her wry sense of humor. I helped her find a place she could ride horses and supported her decision to take a volunteer job at the Humane Society. Svetlana developed new skills, which built up her confidence. Her work with animals carried her away from her mean-spirited classmates to older, wiser people.

I made a few predictions. “Over the summer you will be surprised by moments of happiness and confidence. Next year, you will meet a kindred spirit.” For the most part my predictions came true. The summer of horses was a happy one and in the fall Svetlana marched bravely into high school. She did make a good friend, but she told me, “I’d rather shovel manure than face the 100 percent screwed-up-ness that is high school.” Fair enough, I conceded. I couldn’t fix everything.

Most of us are in this work for deeply personal reasons that we need to acknowledge. I grew up nurturing and caretaking as the “big sister.” But alas, I’m also pretty good at being bossy and overly responsible. I have to watch both of these tendencies as a therapist.

We need to recognize when we are getting our clients mixed up with our mother, our elementary school principal, or our first boyfriend. We need to know whom we can help and whom we can’t. For example, I am lousy at working with violent men. They scare me and I can’t forgive them for hurting women and children.

While I don’t think we therapists need to be paragons of mental health, I do think we need to be reasonably well-adjusted. Addicts, psychopaths, and self-deluded therapists damage vulnerable clients. We need good people skills. I acquired mine as a waitress. All through high school, I was a carhop at an A & W Root Beer stand. In college, at various greasy spoons and donut shops, I dealt with crabby, persnickety customers, and with snobs, drunks, and cheapskates. I also met charmers, jokers, and some of the kindest folks imaginable. By the time I figured out how to get along with John Q Public, I had a good education in the vagaries of humanity.


  • "A wise and compassionate book."—Washington Post Book World
  • "In Letters, Pipher comes across as more of a tribal elder than clinician, an empathetic observer offering solid advice that just happens to be supported by decades of research and experience."—Florida Times-Union
  • "Pipher's book just might be one of the most soothing books you'll ever read."—The Plain Dealer
  • "Giving advice seems to be second nature to her.”—Kirkus
  • “Refreshing, informative and insightful.”—Publishers Weekly
  • “Mary Pipher is a national treasure. Everyone, not just therapists, can benefit from this wise, compassionate, lovely book.”—Jean Kilbourne, author of Can’t Buy My Love
  • “Writing with her usual grace, compassion and humility, Pipher once again proves herself to be a magnificent storyteller and a wise, trustworthy guide for our times. She speaks straight to the heart.”—Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., author of The Dance of Anger
  • “Mary Pipher makes me proud to be a therapist.”—William J. Doherty, author of Take Back Your Marriage
  • “What shines through the pages of this small book is Mary Pipher’s abundant wisdom, rare compassion, simple courage, disarming charm, and outrageous simplicity.”—Sam Keen, author of Fire in the Belly
  • “Mary Pipher’s tidy, cordial book is so crammed with spunk and wide-ranging wisdom I wish it were required reading for all three branches of government. Pipher has done what we want therapists to do—she’s shared with us her love of life and hatred of cruelty and her hope for all of us.”—Carol Bly, author of Beyond the Writers’ Workshop

On Sale
Feb 9, 2016
Page Count
224 pages
Basic Books

Mary Pipher

About the Author

Mary Pipher is the author of numerous books, including the bestsellers Women Rowing North, The Shelter of Each Other, Another Country, and the landmark Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, which spent 154 weeks of the New York Times bestseller list and has been translated into nineteen languages. Pipher has traveled all over the world lecturing to students, health-care professionals, and community groups. She lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.

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